Public Domain Works Can Be Used Without Credit

from the so-says-the-Supreme-Court dept

Interesting legal decision handed down by the Supreme Court today concerning the use of works in the public domain. The case is a bit confusing, but the summary appears to be that a company named Dastar produced a film about World War II, using footage that was in the public domain – though was originally owned by 20th Century Fox. Fox claimed that Dastar should be required to credit them, under trademark law, saying that they were misrepresenting the origin of the work. The Supreme Court, however, has ruled that it’s unreasonable to require anyone using public domain material to figure out everyone they might need to credit in order to use the work. Sounds like a reasonable decision on intellectual property from the Supreme Court. Who would have thought it was possible?

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Comments on “Public Domain Works Can Be Used Without Credit”

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Csharpener says:

Re: Public domain? What's that?

I don’t think that applies to matters of public record like news reels.

I think that if enough IP cases get to the high courts, we will see more reasonable decisions becoming precident. But few cases do. It will take time, but at some point we will have reasonable ip laws.

Michael Ward (profile) says:

DASTAR Copyright case

In spite of the fact that much of our e-book business involves new publication of older material that has fallen out of copyright, there are some aspects of this decision that I find troubling.

The UPI story that Mike linked to covers the copyright issue pretty well. Fox should have renewed the copyrights, but they didn’t. They lost their control of the films when they screwed up. (The “automatic” extensions from the mid-70’s actually left quite a number of things still requiring explicit renewals.)

The truth is that lots of things — that should have been copyrighted or renewed — never were. You can visit the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress and go through the ledgers yourself; you’ll be surprised at what you find.

But it bothers me that Dastar gave the original creators no credit. That shows greed and a lack of class.

The legal case was about Fox’s attempt to regain financial control of the work. Since they had already lost their control via copyright, they were trying to use Trademark law as another way to regain ownership. The court found that that was not what the Trademark law was all about.

Probably it wouldn’t have hurt Dastar to include some references to the original publication of the films. They could have put one credit line on the box.

Of course, the law being what it is, Fox might then have sued Dastar for using “Fox” on the packaging to imply that it had been licensed from them.

When we reissue things like uncollected Rafael Sabatini stories, Sherman’s Memoirs, etc. we try to give original publication data. This is useful to historians, critics, and just plain readers.

I’m sure some of the people who bought the Dastar collection wondered why some of the material seemed a little bit familiar. Maybe not many; television was still not in everybody’s home in 1949 (!)

Michael Ward

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